Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Mysterious Fish

5.0 out of 5 stars The Folklore of Eels

I love eels. And by that, I mean I love to eat them. I discovered the joys of unagi kabayaki (broiled eel) when I lived in Japan, and after one taste I was scarking down as many of them as I could afford. They are a unique and delicous animal.

But aside from their taste, I didn’t know much about eels. I knew little about their biology, about thier habitats and territory. I didn’t even know if they were fish, or some other form of marine life.

After reading James Prosek’s “Eels,” I found that I was not alone in my ignorance. Eels are a mysterious creature, apparently, even to those who have dedicated their lives to studying them. They are spawned somewhere and somehow in the deep Sargasso Sea, then swim hundreds of miles as tiny little glass eels to the freshwater river systems of the world to live out their lives. When they get big enough, they head back out to the same place in the ocean, where they mate and die to start the cycle all over again. Maybe. That is the equivilent of the scientific “best guest” and know one knows for sure what the life-cycle of an eel is.

Perhaps it is this lack of solid information that sent Prosek in search of the mythological. Because “Eels” is more of a Joseph Campbell book than a Stephen Jay Gould. Prosek explores four cultures that are rich with eel-lore. The first is a solitary man, Ray Turner, who runs an ancient Eel Weir on the Delaware River in the Catskills Mountains. Ray is the very picture of a back-to-nature mountain man/philosopher. His weir is hand-built every year from stones he hauled with his own hand, and he forbids the use of machinery to aid in his back-breaking labor. The eels he catches are hand-smoked and sold for Ray’s only income. From there, Prosek goes to New Zealand and the Moari, who catch and eat eels as traditional food but still consider certain eels to be sacred, called taniwha. When discovered, taniwha must be set free or else suffer terrible curses. After New Zealand, Prosek takes a look at the place where eels go to die, Japan. The endless appetite of Japanese people for unagi kabayaki has fueled an industry that leads to baby glass eels being worth more than their weight in gold. Finally, the tiny island of Phohnpei where all eels are sacred and they would no more eat an eel than your average American would eat a dog or a Hindu a cow.

I love mythology and folklore, and especially travel, so I enjoyed Prosek’s exploration of these native cultures and their eel lore. The island of Phohnpei was particularly fascinating, with an entire creation mythology built around eels that is told in a sacred story. Each person knows a part of the story, and it is thought that if a human being completes the story than they finish their lives. My previous knowledge of Phohnpei had consisted entirely of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, where Phohnpei is the closets human-populated island to the sunken city of R’lyeh. The island was so mythological to me that I didn’t even know it was a real place!

A cool book altogether, but not what I was suspecting. There is little here of biology or cooking. Sure, those aspects were touched upon, but not to any great degree. But the Story of Eels was fascinating and will give me something to think about the next time I set down to a dish of unagi kabayaki!

Advertisements

Oroshi (garlic paste) in tube

5.0 out of 5 stars Convenient and delicious

There isn’t too much one can say about this, other than it is great and a constant companion in my kitchen. It is basically minced garlic in a tube, and that’s about it. The consistency and flavor is roughly identical to garlic that has been through a garlic press.

However, anyone who does a lot of cooking with garlic knows what a pain it is to peel and crush the stinking rose, and just grabbing this little tube saves you a lot of time and energy. It substitutes just fine for any recipe requiring minced or crushed garlic. Obviously, if you want big chunks then you still have to do it the old fashioned way, but this is one of those short cuts that actually work. In fact, it works so good it is surprising that this is an imported Japanese product, and not a regular US food item found in any grocery store.

Kewpie Mayonnaise

5.0 out of 5 stars Just tastes better

I always used to hate mayonnaise, and couldn’t imagine using it as a regular condiment. Turns out I just hated American mayonnaise.

Japanese mayonnaise is made with rice vinegar and a spice called ajinomoto, which gives it a hint of the flavor called umami. Umami is a special flavor, found mainly in Asian cooking, that can be detected by the human tounge outside the four basic tastes of sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. Japanese mayonnaise is much better for cooking, especially for making salad dressings. That hint of umami makes all the difference.

Kewpie brand is the most popular brand of Japanese mayonnaise, and so it is a bit of a comfort food like Heinz ketchup is to Americans. Aside from tasting great, it is just nice to see the familiar bottle sitting in the fridge, knowing you can pull it out at any time and make your tacoyaki taste just that much better.

Kikkoman – Tamari Soy Sauce

 

5.0 out of 5 stars A healthier, more delicious soy sauce

Kikkoman – Tamari Soy Sauce 8.5 Fl. Oz.

Soy sauce isn’t just soy sauce. There are many different styles of quality and flavor, and just like any other condiment people are going to have their preferences.

Personally, I love pure tamari soy sauce. This is the original stuff, darker and more flavorful; it is the traditional recipe for Japanese soy sauce as it was originally introduced from China. Made as a by-product of miso production, tamari soy sauce has far more nutrients and health benefits than the mass-produced flavoring agent that can be found in any supermarket.

Unfortunately, due to production techniques and quality, tamari soy sauce is often considerably more expensive than the standard commercial variety. Even though I love it, I confess that I don’t use it when recipes call for large amounts, or when the richer flavor of tamari is just going to be lost in the blend. However, whenever I use pure soy sauce, such as with sushi or sashimi, then I absolutely dish out the extra cash for the better flavor. Tamari soy sauce and some real wasabi make a huge difference.

Kikkoman – Aji-Mirin (Sweet Cooking Rice Wine)

mirin

5.0 out of 5 stars Necessary

Mirin and Soy Sauce. That is all you really need for authentic Japanese cooking. And you need it everywhere. Those two liquids are the foundation for almost all recipes, and are used in some quantity in every dish. I do a considerable amount of Japanese cooking, and running out of mirin sends me into panic mode and heading out to the store.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that “teriyaki sauce” has anything with Japanese cuisine. Purely an American invention, true teriyaki cooking is a combination of mirin and soy sauce, based on the meat or vegetables which are then slowly cooked, rotating sides until they become a delicious brown sticky mess. It is sooo much better than the fast food restaurants try to pass off as “Japanese teriyaki”.

When it comes to brands, it is hard to go wrong with Kikkoman. For both mirin and soy sauce, they put out a consistently good product that you can count on to enhance your cooking. There are probably more refined and expensive brands out there, but Kikkoman does me just fine, as it does for the millions of Japanese households where it sees daily use.

As a sweetened wine, mirin adds flavor as well as nutrients to a dish, and can even be used as a sugar substitute in some recipes for those trying to escape from refined white sugar. Check out Japanese Foods That Heal for an in-depth discussion on mirin’s health benefits and uses.

Yuzu Kosho

yuzu

5.0 out of 5 stars My favorite spice

I got addicted to this stuff when I was living in Japan, and one of my big regrets about being back in the US is how hard, and how expensive, it is to lay my hands on some yuzu kosho.

Yuzu kosho is made from the citrus fruit yuzu, which has a distinct flavor, different from a lime or lemon. Kosho basically means “pepper”, and this paste has a peppery flavor with a distinct yuzu bite. It is soooooo good, and goes with almost everything. It is especially good on chicken and fish, which is what I mainly use it for. I also use it for a ranch-style dressing that is fantastic.

This brand here is a high-quality version, rather than the ubiquitous cheap tube form you can find anywhere in Japan. You don’t use a lot of it when cooking, and a little goes a long ways, so this little jar will last awhile. I am really glad to have a place to buy it here in the US, because frankly I don’t want to go back to cooking without it!

Yuzu Juice – 5.06 Oz

yuzu

5.0 out of 5 stars Sweet, sweet nectar

Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit, eaten during the winter, sometimes translated as “citron.” It has a very unique and luxurious taste. I have one cookbook that attempts to replicate the flavor by combining grapefruit, lemon and lime juice, but it just doesn’t work.

I got addicted to cooking with yuzu when I lived in Japan, as it adds a special touch to many dishes. The juice isn’t used as often as the aromatic peel, but even just splashing some of grilled fish adds a really nice layer.

The fruit is ubiquitous and cheap in Japan, costing no more than lemons and considerably less than limes. There are some growers in California, but the fruit is still too obscure to show up even at specialty grocery stores. Because of that, even this small bottle of juice is going to cost quite a bit of cash. I have seen it sell for somewhat cheaper at local Asian specialty stores, but if this is your only access to the product at least it is available!

You can get the yuzu flavor in the peppery pesto-like Yuzu Kosho, which is a must in my kitchen. The yuzu flavored soy-sauce ponzu is also available for less than the pure juice. (Although check the label. Sometimes ponzu is flavored with another Japanese fruit, sudachi, rather than yuzu.)

But be careful. Once you go yuzu, you won’t be going back.

%d bloggers like this: